What is Iboga?

Iboga, which has been translated as “to care for”1 or “to heal,” is the common name of a group of perennial shrubs that belong to the Apocynaceae family, which are typically found in the understory of tropical forests in the Congo Basin.2 The name usually refers to Tabernanthe iboga, but can also include Tabernanthe manii, or other varieties, which are not always botanically distinguished.3 There are reported to be a total of seven common identified varieties of iboga found throughout Gabon, where it is most prolific.4 Some data suggests that there could be as many as 650 recorded variations in the Tabernanthe genus.5

In the Central West African rainforest, iboga has a history of traditional use in rituals of healing and rights of passage that stretches back for millennia. Its use originated with the pygmies, or forest people, who later shared their knowledge with the Bantu population of Gabon. This exchange led to the development of Bwiti around the late 19th century. While remaining central to Gabonese culture, more recently, Bwiti temples have spread to some of the surrounding regions such as Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Congo, and Zaire.6

Mature iboga trees often grow to about 1.5 meters in height and diameter, but older specimens have been known to grow to the size of small trees, sometimes 10 meters in height, under certain circumstances. While there are differentiations between varieties, iboga is best characterized by its small five-petaled flowers and distinctive inedible orange fruits.

Iboga is the best known and most concentrated plant source for ibogaine, as well as 11 other alkaloids.7 Lower doses are traditionally used to combat fatigue, and as an aphrodisiac. Larger doses are used ritually in initiation. In occidental society, ibogaine therapy has several applications, including as an aid to psychotherapy and in the treatment of substance use disorders, especially for opiate use disorders. Some of the other iboga alkaloids have independently been shown to interrupt substance use disorders.8

Recent reports about the sustainability of Tabernanthe iboga and related species may be experiencing over-harvesting, and may also be affected by a number of other environmental and social factors, which may threaten its population in its natural habitat.

Image © 2011 Spencer Woodard. Used by permission.

  1. Iboga: The Visionary Root of African Shamanism. Vincent Ravelec, Mallendi, Agnes Paicheler. Park Street Press. 2007. 

  2. “State of Knowledge Study on Tabernanthe iboga Baillon: A report for the Central African Regional Program for the Environment.” Tonya Mahop Marcelin, Asaha Stella, Dr. NDAM Nouhou, Blackmore Paul. March, 2000. Read full text

  3. Bwiti: an Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa. “Equatorial Excursions: The Quest for Revitalizing Dreams and Visions.” Chapter 18. Fernandez, James W. Princeton University Press, 1982. Read full text

  4. “Ecological Report on Tabernanthe Iboga.” Presentation at the 4th Global Ibogaine Therapy Alliance Conference. Guignon, Yann. 8 May, 2014. Read full text

  5. Marcelin, et al. 2000. 

  6. “The Bwiti Religion and the psychoactive plant Tabernanthe iboga (Equatorial Africa).” Samorini, Giorgio. Integration, vol. 4, pp. 4-10. Read full text

  7. “The Iboga and Voacanga Alkaloids.” Taylor, WI. Read full text

  8. “Pharmacology of Ibogaine and Ibogaine-Related Alkaloids.” The Alkaloids. Piotr Popik, Phil Skolnick. Vol. 52. San Diego, 1998. Read full text

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